Dylanesque: songs that are comparable to Dylan. Part 1: Desolation Row


By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: As we’ve come to the end of the series about Dylan’s favorite songs (the last episode being here, with an index to the full series) I put my thinking cap on to come up with something else we could do.

And I thought a nice way to piggy back off that series would be to look at songs that were inspired by Dylan. Hence I came up with this series which I have called Dylanesque (I stole the title from the Bryan Ferry album). Sometimes the songs will be ones we know and love and others will be new.

In fact, there is even a Wikipedia page devoted to the term Dylanesque and it describes it as:

Dylanesque (comparative more Dylanesque, superlative most Dylanesque)

  1. In the style of, or reminiscent of the music or lyrics of Bob Dylan (born 1941).

So I thought we could do the usual format: I will find a couple of songs that I feel were inspired by Dylan and send them over to you for your comments. Does that sound good?

Tony: Absolutely.  I know I’ll enjoy it, and I am hopeful that some of the three quarters of a million or so visits we get each year on the site will be directed to reading it.  And might I also extend a thought to everyone who ever takes a look at Untold Dylan – if you have an article, or just an idea for an article, and you think it might fit in with Untold, please do send in your thoughts to Tony@schools.co.uk

Aaron: OK, then let’s begin!

Here are a couple of songs I always got a Desolation Row vibe from… what do you think?

First is Joe Strummer with Ramshackle Day Parade from his 2003 posthumous album Streetcore

Tony: As I understand this is a song about or perhaps I should say, a remembrance of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001; he was one of the original members of the Clash, and as such one of the heroes of my pal who I go to football matches with and indeed who I spent much of yesterday with.

I read a comment that said that the lyrics don’t point the blame at anyone; no one knows or can say how it has all gone wrong, but it all has.  And that feels right to me…

The lyrics start

Muffle the drums
The hope of a new century comes
Was it all the amphetamine presidents
And their busy wives
Or did Manhattan crumble
The day Marlyn died

So while Dylan takes a single graphic image (postcards of the hanging) and (most certainly on the original recording) a very gentle relaxed musical style in contrast to the lyrics, Strummer uses multiple images and music that at times seems to strive to represent the chaos and catastrophe of everything.

Yet to my mind (and as ever of course this is just me) the images that Dylan utilises have an extra strength somehow.  “And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go,” sung in such a gentle non-rioting way, always signifies to me that once the state creates the mechanisms of repression it has to use them, but also try to keep them under cover  – which I think is absolutely true.

But I find

Bring out the banners of Stalingrad
Here come the marching band

much more confusing.  And because the music at times seems to be falling over itself (which is of course an excellent notion if the music is to represent September 11) it becomes too much for me to take.   Dylan, by making the music so simple, allows me to feel the horrors of what was happening in the story he re-tells.  I don’t find that so much with the Clash.

Aaron: Next we have Dan Bern with Thanksgiving Day Parade from has 2001 album “New American Language.”

Tony: Technical note – it is one of those links which works for Aaron in the USA, but not for me in the UK.  I’ve added a second link below that works for me – hopefully one of these will work for you.


Tony (continuing): And I am overwhelmed.  Just as I was when you presented us with “Lawyers, guns and money”.   This is just such overwhelming fun, in the sense that it presents everything that can happen at a party, in a parade, in a holiday celebration, in everything, it can all just explode in this colourful overwhelming adventure of ideas, sounds, people, places…

As I have often mentioned my response to music is a mix of pure emotion (in which the sound knocks me out even before I know anything of the lyrics), plus then either the meaning or the fun of the words, and then finally the music, in which I often go in my own direction, having worked as a musician in the early part of my life.

And because this is a combination of various emotional rather than logical responses, it is often hard to understand and hard to express verbally.  And my responses are always related to where I am emotionally as I listen.

Now today (the morning of a public holiday in England) I’m still on a high because yesterday I drove to London (about 80 miles from my home) to the house of my best pal, and from there we went to our favourite pub and then on to watch the football team we both support.  The team won magnificently, it was the last game of the season and there was an overwhelming outpouring of emotion from the crowd of 60,000. not least when the coach came onto the pitch at the end and made a speech thanking us all for our support.

So I am still buzzing from that day out, and now I get to hear this song which I didn’t know, and which relates to yesterday, and to going to the Isle of Wight concert in my youth, all at once.

I don’t know if this is great music and I have my doubts about some of the lyrics, but it is above everything overwhelming fun, on the morning after a day of overwhelming fun.  I can only hope that you, dear reader, will be able to join in the fun at bit as well.

The link with Desolation Row of course is the chaos, but here the chaos is being celebrated.  But song appreciation is also always personal, and I’m suddenly jerked out of just bouncing along and enjoying the piece when I hear

And we slowly started dancing
And began slowly to heal

And if you have read my ramblings across the years you may have picked up somewhere that even at my advanced age I still indulge in my lifelong hobby of jiving (although these days it is modern jive, which is safer for us oldies, and more like swing), and I am out five nights a week dancing away – as a way of overcoming a day spent typing away on the computer.

But I guess this is my point: responses to music and lyrics are personal.  No one can outdo Dylan’s “Desolation Row” but here we have two approaches to the same subject: one is harsh and focuses on the horrors, one is fun, and says even in a world such as this where such awful things happen, we can, and indeed I think we must, on occasion find ways to release and let go.  And today, after a great day out with my pal, that’s where I want to be.

I’m going to publish all the lyrics, because I think if you like the music, you’ll enjoy it even more next time through with the words made a little clearer.

Everybody was ecstatic
‘Bout the light show on the farm
And everyone got crazy
And nobody got harmed
And the five televisions
Huge upon the stage
Had come to pay their union dues
And make a living wage
And the bathroom was the clubhouse
Where the colors all got made
And plans were cast in feathers
For the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And the DJ spins his records
From here out to the sun
And he flings them through a big hole
In the ozone one by one
And somewhere beyond Mercury
The wax begins to melt
And we touched a perfect stranger
And we loved the way it felt
And we all hung together
In our crew cuts and our braids
Floating down Broadway
Above the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And you and I were discussing Natalie
As you poised to thrust above her
And I told you how I admire her
And will always need to love her
But I told you how I lost
My best friend Mr. Neill
And we slowly started dancing
And began slowly to heal
And then we all held hands
And no one was afraid
On our way to sell our sculptures
At the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And Michelangelo finally came down
After 4 years on the ceiling
He said he’d lost his funding
And the paint had started peeling
And he told us that his patron
His Holiness, the Pope
Was demanding productivity
With which our friend just couldn’t cope
And he rode off on his skateboard
With his brushes and his blade
Muttering something ’bout some food
And the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And we who were born in one millennium
And will die in the next
Are slightly underappreciated
And slightly oversexed
And as the seconds and the minutes
Start to vanish one by one
I’m watching more cartoons
As I get my toenails done
And we went downtown to deliver
Turkeys to people with AIDS
And then we headed uptown
To the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And the music keeps on grinding
And the electrophonic crunch
And my father’s hair is thinning
And my mom ate some for lunch
And you, you were my babysitter
And you let me break my tooth
And we sit here tied together
In a bar in the back booth
And the band is in an uproar
Only the drum machine’s been paid
And we’ll have to bring our own tunes
To the Thanksgiving Day Parade

Australians are the coolest
People in the world
Let’s all go down under
With strings of colored pearls
And lay them at the feet
Of the heirs of English crime
And listen to old Men At Work
And have a real good time
And we dug until we hit the rocks
Then we threw away the spade
And built a platform to get a better view
Of the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And I love whoever’s next to me
I love them so, so much
They let me lean against them
Like a beautiful crutch
And everyone should come up
On the stage and grab the mike
And tell us one by one
Who they are and what they like
And the babies are the only ones
To have lately gotten laid
And I’m feeling young and eager
For the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And you explained to me that without your fans
You’d be back out on the street
With nothing but chitlins on your plate
And splinters in your feet
And if you die, you’re gone you said
And your friends are left behind
And you’ll be a statistic
And we’ll be deaf and blind
And darkness is a virtue
And molasses is not afraid
To slow down the countdown
To the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And somewhere in the distance
An orchestra shows its face
With Natalie on the oboe
Ty on double bass
John plays the viola
Slik the tenor sax
James he blows harmonica
In vanilla skintight slacks
Hugo oozes alto sax
Ivory the trombone
Masuda squawks the trumpet
Andre xylophone
Ron he shreds the violin
In a green Italian suit
Mike talks on the telephone
On a tape with an endless loop
Geoff he blows the clarinet
With an old-time rockin’ feel
Charlie dings the triangle
Dave the glockenspiel
Chris puffs on the tuba
H a big bass drum
Alfonso throbs the cello
Like he would a woman, with his thumb
And high up on the podium
In tails with his baton poised
Banksy leads the orchestra
In a glorious, awful noise
And on a float of dripping oil paint
The orchestra, it played
Kissing the whole universe
In the Thanksgiving Day Parade

And life is like a fairy tale
Every step feels like a dream
That keeps on getting nearer
And more and more extreme
And we just got switched with Venus
And we’re closer to the sun
And I got no problem with it
Nor should anyone
And the cops just blew on in here
And we’re in some kind of raid
I just hope they will release us
For the Thanksgiving Day Parade

If you have enjoyed this song one tenth as much as I have while writing this, then, just take care as you come down from the ceiling.

Untold Dylan – the current series

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